We are creating a unified UKRI website that brings together the existing research council, Innovate UK and Research England websites.
If you would like to be involved in its development let us know.

Headphones and the supporting role in they play in our lives


People worry a lot about headphones.

The modern obsession with them arguably began with the arrival of the hugely-popular Sony Walkman in 1979. But it didn't take long for some academics and journalists to start fearing the worse.

In 1984 Professor Shuhei Hosokawa kicked off the backlash with an article entitled The Walkman Effect that suggested headphones were affecting our ability to connect with one another and creating a place that was “out of space and time, a placeless place, where the user is taken to be disconnected from the world around”.

His ideas went on to gather force among many cultural commentators as digital media began to proliferate around the turn of the millennium and, first the iconic white earbuds of the iPod and then brands Bose and Dr Dre's Beats, took headphone popularity to a new level. “iPhone oblivion” became a much-used phrase.

“But if this is the case, if headphones are so damaging, then why are they so incredibly popular?” asks Jacob Downs, who is currently researching the popularity of headphones for his Arts and Humanities research Council (AHRC)-funded PhD in the Department of Music at the University of Sheffield.

“I just don't think these broad-brushed cultural commentaries - while they are useful - give us the full picture.

“I want to create a more nuanced picture of headphone use and headphone 'culture'. Are we really using them to block ourselves off from pubic urban spaces that have become increasingly fraught? Or is there something else going on?”

To find out more about the granular detail of people's experience of headphones, Jacob's research has focused on interviewing people at length to understand more about their choices. “I think too often academia misses this detail,” he says.

At the heart of his research are three questions.

Firstly, what is people's relationship with this technology all about? How do headphones play a supporting role in their lives and their understanding of the world around them.

Secondly, how do headphones affect users' perception of space? Do they make people more or less connected to their environment?

And finally, how does listening to media in this way affect their understanding of their body, how they feel about their body, and the way that they move?

“Some of the things that have come out already have been really surprising,” says Jacob. 

“What I've found interesting is that, while people have a huge amount of experience of wearing headphones, and have a really intimate understanding of their experience of wearing headphones, they almost never talk about it.

“It's been really fascinating to see people open up. I sometimes think of myself as a 'headphone counsellor'!”

For example, Jacob has found that while some people hate in-ear headphones - they find them physically intrusive and don't like the way that they cross a bodily barrier - other people feel equally strongly about over-ear headphones – which they find heavy, restrictive and affect the way that they can move around or exercise.

“There is also a lot of stuff about wires, which I wasn't expecting,” he says. 

“Some people love wireless headphones - they actually talk about 'cutting the umbilical cord' and feeling free. While others get a sense of security from having a wire, especially those who have some anxiety about sound somehow 'leaking out'. 

“The wire reassures them that they are not suddenly going to blast out Britney Spears across the carriage of their commuter train!”

Clearly, our relationship with headphones is an important one that is poorly understood - important because of the popularity of headphones and important because of what they mean to people.

“One of the things that really drew me into this topic is all the negativity in what has been written about headphones. So much of it is dystopian and fearful. And yet headphones play such a big role in people's lives. I was really interested in this other side of the story.

“I found a lot of comments patronising towards people who, for whatever reason, want to use headphones to regulate their experience of the world around them. When they are dismissed as 'zombies' I find that a bit offensive.”

In particular, Jacob's work looking at the way autistic children use headphones provides an interesting counterpoint to the more negative critiques.

In schools he visited some children on the autistic spectrum will keep their headphones on all day - some listen to the same music over and over again. But this allows them to regulate experiences they find difficult and participate more happily in school life.

“It was really amazing to see how headphones in this context really subvert the view that their use somehow precludes or occludes human interaction.

“Through my research I've met many amazing people - from former SAS soldiers to people providing closed captions services - and all of them have formed important and interesting relationships with their headphones in one way or another.”

It seems the simple capacity to take music or other media with us has brought with it many benefits to society - even if the reasons behind this are themselves complicated. 

Maybe Cliff Richard nailed it in his 1981 hit Wired for Sound: “Walking about with a head full of music, I've got a cassette and I'm going to use it... 


Assocaited image: Tee Cee on Flickr by CC 2.0

Return to features